Credibility, Respect, and Power: Sending the Right Nonverbal Signals
The Commissioner – Fall 2006
by Debra Stein
Planning commissioners spend a lot of time choosing the right words to avoid sending the wrong messages, but it is equally important to monitor the nonverbal communication signals that accompany your words. In fact, research shows that more than 93 percent of communications effectiveness is determined by eye contact, body language, facial expression and voice quality. When you’re trying to convey important messages like, “I am telling the truth,” or, “I respect you,” or when you’re establishing the power positions of the parties, the nonverbal signals you send can be even more important than the particular words you are speaking. Understanding nonverbal communication can help you monitor your own physical cues and understand what other people are telling you, even when they are not speaking out loud. Some of the following suggestions are most relevant in planning commission meetings; others apply to less formal circumstances outside the hearing room, when you are nonetheless still acting in the role of planning commissioner.
Honestly, Now …
People involved in high tension civic discussions often feel very distrustful, and planning commissioners need to carefully monitor both incoming and outgoing nonverbal signals of honesty. How can you tell if a witness is exaggerating or lying? How can you make sure you are not inadvertently sending signals of dishonesty? Here are some tips on how to enhance your own credibility and double-check to see if you are really getting the straight story from other people.
We are very suspicious of people who won’t look us in the eye. Speakers rated as “sincere” make eye contact three times more often than “insincere” speakers. For 90 percent of Americans, intensive, personal eye contact means using your right eye to look into the right eye of the listener. Whether you’re right-handed or left-handed, chances are that you use your right eye to gather data and use your left eye only for depth perception. To test this theory, use your left eye to look at someone else’s left eye … feels awkward, doesn’t it? Making sincere, respectful eye contact, then, involves using your right eye to look into your counterpart’s right eye. Do not stare vaguely at a speaker’s nose or forehead, and avoid shifting eye contact between the left and right eyes, which can send messages of aggression or sexual attraction.
Maintaining sincere eye contact doesn’t mean you have to stare like an unblinking lizard. Honest speakers blink between 10 and 20 times per minute. When Richard Nixon attended his first Watergate press conference, he blinked up to 40 times a minute. It is especially important to avoid excessive blinking when facing a news camera or when sitting on a brightly-lit podium, where strong lights may naturally trigger a lot of blinking.
There really is something called the “Pinocchio Syndrome.” Stress and tension can cause delicate nerves in the face to tingle, so people who are lying or otherwise aroused really do scratch their noses, touch their cheeks, and rub their eyes more frequently than calmer speakers. Keep your hands away from your face!
The same autonomic response that makes the nerves in your face tingle can also thicken the consistency of saliva. Dishonest or uptight speakers often lick their lips, swallow, or clear their throats more often than relaxed and happy speakers. Have some water on hand when making a stressful presentation so that you do not send inadvertent messages of dishonesty.
People with something to conceal often conceal their hands. In stressful situations, keep your hands where people can see them. People who talk with their hands are also perceived as being more powerful and more confident than communicators with hidden hands.
It is easy to say, “Treat citizens with respect,” but what do you actually do to demonstrate your esteem and regard? Let’s start with paying attention. In casual conversation, we tend to prove that we are listening merely by making a sensible response to the speaker’s statement. A teenager who appears to be ignoring a parent’s instructions to turn off the television will suddenly demonstrate adequate listening by turning the TV off. In more formal settings or where there is distrust between the parties, it is important to demonstrate attention towards a speaker long before the citizen actually begins speaking.
The first way to show a speaker that you are paying attention to what is being said is to abandon other activities that are competing for your attention. Set aside reports and turn off your cellular telephone. Put your pen down as soon as a citizen approaches the microphone in order to indicate that you are now turning your attention to the speaker. Needless to say, turning away from the witness to exchange private whispers or jokes with a fellow commissioner is an obvious and inappropriate misdirection of attention.
Leaning forward is an effective way to convey attention to and interest in a speaker. By inclining forward in your chair, you create a more intimate environment between yourself and the speaker that seems to exclude other people or distractions. Leaning back, on the other hand, signals that you feel distanced from the speaker or unwilling to get personally interested in the issues.
Eye contact is a crucial way we signal our respect for another person, and it matters both who you look at and how you look. In an audience setting, some commissioners adopt a machine gun approach to eye contact, shifting their heads from side to side and quickly skimming their eyes over the entire audience. No personal relationship is formed with individual audience members, who feel both disrespected and more likely to view the Planning Commission as impersonal targets to attack.
No matter how big the audience is, genuine, respectful eye contact involves looking at one individual at a time, using your right eye to look into the other person’s right eye. Select one audience member and make personal eye contact with that citizen. Next, look at another part of the audience and make eye contact with another individual. Even if you cannot make individualized eye contact with each person in the room, attendees will perceive that you are respecting each citizen as a unique individual and trying to interact on a personal level.
We have a natural tendency to make more eye contact with people we know and like, and with an individual who has asked a question and is now listening to the answer. In an audience setting, however, looking exclusively at one person in the room can actually send messages of disrespect to everyone else in the audience. Yes, the one person you are looking at will feel important, but everyone else in the audience will feel excluded and offended. If you have something to say of interest to one audience member assume that it is of interest to everyone, so shift eye contact regularly throughout the room to convey your respect for everyone.
Planning commissioners who process information best when it is in writing may alternate between looking at the witness and looking at staff reports and other printed materials, trying to link what they are hearing to the written evidence before them. Other commissioners are such focused listeners that they need to eliminate visual distractions that could compete with auditory evidence. These commissioners may close their eyes to listen to a witness or seem to stare straight “through” the speaker without really seeing anything, or gaze vaguely at their desk or off into space. While these can be effective strategies to help commissioners balance verbal, written, and visual input, if overused, they can send the inadvertent message that the commissioner isn’t “really” listening.
It is extremely important to keep your hands away from your mouth. Roughly three-fourths of people who are covering their mouths when listening are hiding thin, compressed lips of disapproval. Covering your lips sends the signal that you do not like the person you are listening to, that you disagree with what is being said, or that you do not want to be involved in the discussion. These negative nonverbal signals are often accompanied by positive but insincere cues such as nodding one’s head or smiling, but the rejection message always prevails. In fact, a savvy audience can often predict the Planning Commission’s vote simply by watching what happens when various witnesses are testifying. If a supporter stands up to speak at the microphone and the majority of commissioners slowly raise their hands to conceal thin, compressed lips of disapproval, then supporters know they aren’t getting their message across. If too many audience members start covering their lips while you are speaking, then you know that you need to take another approach to get through to listeners.
While keeping your hands away from your mouth is a must, it is perfectly O.K. to touch other parts of your face while listening. Resting your chin on you hand while listening, touching your cheek with your finger or pencil, or adjusting your glasses all send the message that you are listening carefully to what is being said and working hard to understand its meaning.
Power is a real part of the world of planning and politics. Neighbors who feel pushed around feel resentful and angry, while commissioners who appear weak, ineffective, or lacking in confidence may be unable to achieve important civic goals.
Your perceived power has something to do with your title, your authority and your expertise, but it has a lot to do with the nonverbal signals you send. One of the earliest ways power is demonstrated is through our handshake. Power is not established by the bone-crushing strength of your grip, but by the position of your hand in relationship to the other person. Offering your hand with your palm facing downward signals your desire to intimidate the other person, your belief that the other person is “beneath” you, or your wish to dominate the other person. When you offer your hand with the palm face down you’re telling your counterpart, “I’m the top dog, get out of my way before I push you out of the way.” Not surprisingly, men are more likely than women to offer their hands palm down, especially when shaking hands with a woman. Be careful that you don’t automatically offer your hand downwards, which can send inadvertent signals of disrespect or condescension.
Shaking hands with your palm facing upwards shows a conciliatory attitude or suggests that you see yourself as weaker than your counterpart. When someone has forced you into a submissive, palm-up handshake, you cannot establish dominance simply by squeezing your hand in a vise-like grip; the only way to regain power is to use your other hand to touch the other person’s arm while you are shaking hands. Shaking hands with your palm vertical to the floor sends a neutral message and is usually the most appropriate way to offer your hand. And an important tip for men: shake hands with a woman exactly the same way you shake hands with a man. Merely clutching a woman’s fingertips conveys one of the lowest messages of contempt.
Beyond the handshake, hands communicate power in several ways. Powerful people speak with their hands and point with their index fingers while speaking. Like Prince Charles, they clasp their hands behind their backs while standing or walking. On the other hand, people who engage in hand-washing motions, clutch their fingers, rub the back of their necks, put their hands in their pockets, or touch their body or face may be sending signals of nervousness or insecurity, so be aware of what you are doing with your hands to ensure you are sending appropriate signals of confidence and authority.
The person with the tallest shoulders at the conference table is usually perceived as being the most powerful. When it is important to establish control in a professional situation, pick a tall chair, sit fully back in your seat, and keep your shoulders up and your head high. If you are trying to encourage cooperative negotiations or consensus among equals, then consider sitting in a seat that is less intimidating compared to your counterparts’.
Powerful people occupy a lot of space. They spread their belongings across the table and even intrude into other people’s personal space by touching the individuals or their belongings. Not surprisingly, men tend to touch women twice as often as women touch men.
No matter how much space you like to occupy, it is important to keep in mind that everyone has a sphere of private space around them into which intruders are not welcome. When you inadvertently invade someone’s private bubble, that individual feels threatened. Parties engaged in friendly conversation usually stand between two and five feet from each other. Business discussions and professional presentations are usually carried out at a distance of up to 12 feet. Territorial dimensions, however, can vary considerably depending on the race, sex or cultural background of the people involved. Asians, North Americans and people of northern European descent, for instance, prefer more space between speakers than most Latinos, African-Americans, Arabs, or Jews do. Men tend to define a territorial buffer that is larger than the personal space women reserve for themselves. Men tend to feel threatened when their turf is invaded from the front, while women dislike intrusions from the side and prefer to have strangers sit across from them at a table. So when you see someone moving closer or farther away from you, do not automatically adjust the distance to your own comfort level. Instead, consider whether the individual has moved in order to minimize his or her own sense of spatial discomfort.
Sending the Right Signals
While it is always important to pick one’s words carefully in the high-profile world of planning, it is equally important to monitor and control one’s nonverbal communication skills. Through the careful control of body placement, eye contact, and hand movements, planning commissioners can better communicate with the public.
Debra Stein was a co-founder of the San Francisco-based public affairs firm GCA Strategies. The firm’s founders authored several books and articles on NIMBYism and the firm specializes in controversial land use projects across the nation. For more information, e-mail GCA President Frank Noto, call us at 415-391-4100 or visit the GCA Strategies Web site at www.gcastrategies.com.